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The most important thing I learned in art college

Details only matter in the context of the whole

Photo by Justyn Warner on Unsplash

Many years ago, during my first college drawing course, I learned a valuable lesson that would stay with me for the rest of my life.

As I drew my first still-life, my instructor noticed I focused on perfecting a section of the composition before approaching other areas of the scene. She pointed out how the drawing would become out of proportion if I continued.

The instructor tore the paper from my easel, replacing it with a new one. She began filling it with marks from top to bottom. At first, it looked like random scribbles, but soon the still-life in front of us emerged.

As she drew, she repeatedly took a step back to squint at the paper and then at the scene in front of her, stepping forward again to rework the drawing.

I started over with her approach, working my way around the composition, continually referencing the scene in front of me. I stepped back over and over again to squint to make sure things were coming together as a whole before getting into the details.

I worked and reworked the drawing, visually connecting the parts of the composition until it matched the scene.

About half-way through my drawing, I realized I had detached myself from what the objects depicted. The vase was no longer a vase; the bench was no longer a bench; the flowers were no longer flowers. The elements of the scene were all one, a single composition of reflected light, shadows, and darkness.

The approach I learned that day stuck with me for the rest of my life. I apply it in my art and design as well as how I think, write, and make sense of things.

It helps me conceptualize the world without falling for the oversimplifications that plague it.

It taught me to step back to see the whole and appreciate its connections before digging into the details.

It taught me to squint both physically and metaphorically to see the bigger picture.

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Andrew Coyle

Andrew Coyle

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Formerly @Flexport @Google @Intuit @HeyHealthcare (YC S19) • Interested in platforms